Oliver Bauer, an oenologist of the Stirbey Winery Estate and owner of Bauer Winery settled in Romania in 2004, after he gained knowledge of winemaking in Germany, his native country. In an interview for Redteastories.com he talks about the benefits of starting a business abroad and the cost of living as an expat.
Why did you came to Romania?
Oliver Bauer: After my qualifications and some years as a wine-maker in Germany I also wanted to go abroad, to make wine there and to see, what I am capable of. The difficulty was that normally nobody hands you over the keys of a cellar and all the responsibility knowing you will stay only a couple of months. Likewise I didn’t want to do an internship and execute rather simple work during this time, only to be able to say afterwards that I have been “abroad’.
I wanted to make wine by myself, by personal responsibility. Furthermore I also have had to earn money to pay back the credit I took for my education in the field. After a very long search I finally got in contact with a winery in South Tirol. They didn’t need a wine-maker themselves but the owner told me about his brother who wanted to rebuild together with his wife a former very famous winery in Romania.
So I met for the first time Jakob Kripp and his wife Ileana Kripp, the owners of the Stirbey Winery Estate in Dragasani and we discussed in a very nice beer garden near by Munich possibilities of a collaboration. In the beginning the idea has been, to come for 2 months in the country, to train the staff, to establish all the necessary working processes and to come back from time to time to control and to check the progress.
Today I have to say that fortunately the concept of “flying winemaking” didn’t work out for us. To create something new, distinct and of high quality, it requires the permanent presents of the ones who sign responsible. You cannot send from time to time a fax, give good advices, leave and put other people to do your job during the rest of the year. So I came back for good in the end of 2004 right before the second harvest got started.
For me it has been a great chance and precisely what I wanted. To rebuild and develope a winery from zero, working mainly with indigenous, yet rather unknown grape varieties and to help create a new market for fine wines in an emerging country.
What is the cost of living here for you as compared to your home country?
Oliver Bauer: Honestly, I cannot say something about the real, comparable costs because the way I am able to live here has almost nothing in common anymore with the situation, from where I started 15 years ago in Germany. Compared with the average income one’s material life in Romania is for sure more expensive in comparison with Germany, because most of the daily and/or quality products do have the same or even higher prices. Beside this rather trivial observation I am also against the habit to express all the time everything only with money. Out of several different reasons life itself has another, higher quality here for me and this is something nobody can express in a monthly amount of money. So as mentioned in the beginning: comparing average cost from Germany with those here in Romania is a bit like comparing apples with pears…
Why did you decide to stay in Romania?
Oliver Bauer: That’s simple: the possibilities! Here one can still do and reach something without being born with special relations or a silver spoon in one’s mouth.
In Romania everything is needed or holds potential for improvement. That requires of course people with certain skills, experience and the will to risk and change something profound to add to a better long-term future. For those with a pioneering spirit Romania is an ideal “playground”.
Unfortunately the todays schooling and education system in Romania is completely outdated and one-sided and therefore hardly able to face these challenges. Furthermore we keep telling our youth that real craftsmanship is “old school” and that anyway everything is much better in countries like Germany. For a tiny, tiny minority with good relations this may still be true, but I deeply believe that the future lies in countries like Romania. For me Romania is now where Germany has been in the end of the 70’s, only that Germany didn’t have to face and to deal back then with this huge brain-drain and the runoff of its youth.
Why did you start a business here and not in Germany?
Oliver Bauer: What I have been able to do and what I reached with others here in a couple of years, would have taken us at least two generations in Germany. If it would have been even possible in the first place. In Germany I would have been always only one amongst a lot of others. I have had only a very good education and experience in the field but no monetary capital to invest. But this is what’s absolutely necessary to start a (wine-) business in an already over-crowed, completely over-prized market like Germany.
Romania though offered me the “hardware” and I came up with the software to run it. A perfect combination and I can only recommend this to those young people, who are desperate about their future. Get a solid education that really fits your skills or talent in whatever kind of field, and start where there is real need plus potential to develop and not where there is for now the higher monthly salary.
Have you thought to go back to Germany?
Oliver Bauer: I often think about Germany and watching what’s going on recently with this country I have to say that I am very happy that I took the decision to come to Romania now over 10 years ago.
I have never felt any regrets concerning this because Germany wasn’t able to offer me not even a small piece of the possibilities, Romania did and does offer. 10.000’s of young, well educated people think the same and are also leaving Germany, annually!
That’s a pity but reality and as already mentioned – also Romania has to reconsider and to offer possibilities to its youth to stop this drain. If I would have to leave Romania again, out of whatever reasons, I for sure wouldn’t go back to Germany. I would seek out again for a country with good “hardware” but a lack of performant “software”.
What attracted you most in Romania?
Oliver Bauer: Beside the professional possibilities and the fact that Romania is an absolute beautiful country with amazing landscapes and a still intact nature I am most impressed about the Romanian mentality concerning family and real social networking. Due to the lack of useful goods and an omnipresent difficult availability, people were forced to improvise and to work together to get things done. Although there’s until today too often too much “improvisation” for my personal taste I cannot but to pay these people my respect.
This solidarity and team spirit is still alive in our environment in Dragasani. Everybody adds what she or he can to resolve problems and to help the other. It often feels like a kind of a big family. I haven’t known or experienced this in this performant way before and I for sure hope that it may last for a long time more.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of living in Romania for you?
Oliver Bauer: After my opinion one of the biggest downsides in Romania is the lack of an usable, up to date infrastructure and performant logistics. The time one loses on the roads or the rails in this country is simply inacceptable for an European Country in 2018. There is also a big issue with the very poor energy grid. Before I entered Romania I knew power-cuts only by hearsay. It simply never happened. In Dragasani though we are able to “enjoy’ this almost weekly especially if you live outside a town. An important institution like the power supply should never be sold to a private company with quasi monopoly position. Let’s also talk a little bit about the bureaucracy in Romania. Generally I don’t have anything against regulations, controls and rules to set up a civilized scenario for business, but it should be reasonable plus valid for everyone and concerning the authorities the right hand should know what the left hand does.
Today you are forced to tie up a lot of working force to get all the paperwork done. Working force, which would be way better used for production or services. Concerning one’s personal life, the social systems and healthcare is another “construction area”. I know that there are very performant private substitutes for everything but I am talking now about the public sector with hospitals, asylums, schools etc. It is a pity to see, that well-educated professionals are giving up hope and leave the country because of inadequate tools and equipment and often outdated, eroded buildings.
How do you characterize the market in which you operate and what do you think should be improved at the market level in Romania?
Oliver Bauer: Since we started to make wine in 2003, the Romanian wine market has changed a lot. Today people are much more aware of what they are consuming, they travel a lot, they collect information, they became much more critic. Let’s say the market and the consumer became more mature and this is precisely what I want and for what I am working since over 10 years now. But there’s still a long way to go.
The biggest actual problem for me is, that the communication, promotion, and marketing concerning the wine business is still quite undeveloped or, even worse, counterproductive. For example, as long as some of us producers feel the need to minimize in public the success of another competitor, we will produce nothing but confusion and head-shaken on the behalf of the consumer.
That is a shame because Romania holds a huge potential for extraordinary wines and has also a very long history in wine-making. The only thing what we finally need is a coherent marketing and promotion concept, made by experienced professional, for everybody to understand what means “Romanian Wine” and why one should buy a bottle of Romanian wine instead of something else.
Here I am not talking about one particular winery or wine region. I am talking about Romania as a whole. Like on a highway. Here it is absolutely clear for everybody from where it comes and where it leads to but where you are driving, which lane you chose or how fast you drive remains your own decision. But everybody drives in the same direction. For a project like this, it would make a lot of sense to invest European Fonds and public money instead of creating only another production point aka another big winery without a market.